A faculty of fourteen men in a college with an enrollment of 382 undergraduates was not so large that any member of the faculty could give himself exclusively to his own intellectual pursuits. Still, it was large enough for this one man, Francis Child, to begin a forty-year career dedicated to study and publication of the so-called "popular" ballads of Britain.
Professor Child, the former mathematician, came to his consummate interest in what he variously called "popular," "primitive," or "traditional" balladry not by accident but by force of logic. His valedictory address in 1846 to his own graduating class at Harvard College shows how absorbed and how extraordinarily skilled in the arts of expression he was even then. He was a right choice to be Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in later years. Child well understood how indispensable good writing and good speaking are to civilization, or as many would now prefer to say, to society. For him, writing and speaking were not only the practical means by which men share useful information, but also the means whereby they formulate and share values, including the higher order of values that give meaning to life and purpose to human activities of all sorts. Concerned as he thus so greatly was with rhetoric, oratory, and the motives of those mental disciplines, Child was inevitably drawn into pondering the essential differences between speech and writing, and to searching for the origins of thoughtful expression in English.